No Virat Kohli, no problem? Well, India haven’t really played without the talismanic leader much in the longest format for us to know for sure.

The last instance when he missed out on a Test was when India played Australia in the final Test of the four-match series. Ajinkya Rahane was the stand-in skipper then and led the team to a series-clinching win despite Kohli’s absence.

From Thursday in Bengaluru, the Mumbaikar will once again be at the helm with Kohli out through injury (his county stint would have made sure he missed this anyway). India face the tricky challenge of Afghanistan who are banking on the wicket-taking prowess of star spinner Rashid Khan to upset the Indian apple cart.

Being debutants, a win for Afghanistan would not be on top of most experts’ predictions – after all only one team has ever won a Test on debut, which was Australia in the first ever official Test match.

However, a vulnerable Indian batting line-up sans Kohli does not inspire confidence.

Test troubles

India’s top-order did not give a good account of their ability in South Africa. The opening slot wasn’t locked down, with Shikhar Dhawan and KL Rahul trading places for one of the spots in the three-match series.

Murali Vijay, who was the other opener in the XI failed to score a single half-century during his six innings. Stand-in skipper Rahane was brought into the side only in the final Test in place of a struggling Rohit Sharma, who has been left out of this one-off Test. Rahane returned with scores of 0 and 48 in the game – his second innings effort proving quite crucial as it turned out.

Batting mainstay Pujara too did not operate in top gear during the series, scoring just one half-century in the three Tests.

Save for one dramatic knock from Hardik Pandya, it was Kohli and his run-scoring ways that kept India competitive. The skipper did the bulk of the scoring.

Indian batsmen in SA

Batsman Total runs
Shikhar Dhawan 32 runs in 2 inns (50s: 0, 100s: 0)
KL Rahul 30 runs in 4 inns (50s: 0, 100s: 0) 
Murali Vijay 102 runs in 6 inns (50s: 0, 100s: 0)
Cheteshwar Pujara 100 runs in 6 inns (50s: 1, 100s: 0)
Ajinkya Rahane 57 runs in 2 inns (50s: 0, 100s: 0)
Virat Kohli 286 runs in 6 inns (50s: 1, 100s: 1)

Pujara in County

100 runs in 6 inns (50s: 0, 100s: 0)
India coach Ravi Shastri looks over the team's training session ahead of his side's one-off Test against Afghanistan. Photo: AFP
India coach Ravi Shastri looks over the team's training session ahead of his side's one-off Test against Afghanistan. Photo: AFP

One eye on England tour

With Kohli unavailable, it will be the top-order which will have to pull up their socks. The selectors have also brought Karun Nair and Dinesh Karthik into the mix and both have been out of contention for a considerable time. Karthik, in fact, dons India’s white flannels after nearly eight years.

Nair, who has struggled to maintain form following his triple century in 2016, on the other hand will treat this as a second chance to prove his worth.

Confident Afghanistan

The noise from the Afghanistan camp suggests they are quietly confident of their bowling line-up. With the dangerous Rashid Khan leading the charge, the visitors feel they can keep the Indian batsmen in check.

So far, batsmen around the world have struggled to pick the wily spinner. How he performs in the Test arena will be an intriguing aspect. Being their first-ever Test, Afghanistan are likely to be the more charged up side. Mujeeb Zadran, the 17-year-old spin sensation has risen rapidly to become a key member of the national team alongside Rashid as well.

Most Indian players will have one mind on the high-profile tour of United Kingdom on their mind. The selection for the five-Test series is still pending and selectors would be looking at this Test as a final audition.

And most batsmen come into the contest having played for their respective franchises in the Indian Premier League and will be looking to get back into the groove in the longest format.

Pujara is the only batsman from the side who will go into the Test having played longer-format cricket following the South Africa tour. The Saurashtra batsman, however, did not set the stage on fire. In four matches in the County Championships his highest score was 41.

Back in home conditions, the batsmen will be expected to put up a better show.

But remember, the Afghan bowlers are not too alien to Indian wickets either. They have been training in India since 2015 owing to the security concerns back home.

To not have Kohli in their midst will be an ideal test for the batting line-up which in the past few years has invariably relied on him to bail them out of tough situations. The world No 1 side should still have the edge going by the overall balance of the squad but the recent form of the batsmen is a chink in their collective armour that the debutants can exploit.